Known as the "Gem of the Southern Mines," the town of Columbia is one of the best-preserved Gold Rush sites in California. The State Park Service, multitudes of volunteers, and 1850's-themed businesses help to perpetuate the feel of the time.
Columbia does a lot of things very well, and one of them is celebrating Christmas.
California's Gold Rush occurred during Britain's Victorian era.
As the leader of the English-speaking world at the time, Britain's culture influenced the United States through writing, architecture, art, politics, entertainment and technology. While California's mining camps were usually very rough places, some degree of "civilization" did manage to penetrate the wildness. Much of this culture came form the East Coast or from Britain through the East Coast.
The myriad of people who immigrated to California from other parts of the world also influenced the Gold Rush towns. Consequently, Columbia's Christmas events have a mix of elements from the East Coast, Britain, Mexico and pre-Gold Rush California.
Columbia has Gold Rush-themed stores, restaurants, historic hotels, a museum and dozens of restored buildings to explore, but one of the most enjoyable parts of a visit is just walking around the quiet streets of the town, many of which are only open to pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles.
If you're not up for a big hike, this is a perfect place to stretch your legs and enjoy the crisp air. Much of the town is wheelchair accessible and it's designed to be kid-friendly.
It's also only about 60 miles from Merced.
Regularly-scheduled events include walking tours of the town every Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. Five special Christmas-themed events are listed in the sidebar. For more information about events in Columbia go to http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/ or call (209) 563-1672.
Because Columbia is a living town, there isn't a "closing time," but most businesses are open from 10-5 daily.
If Columbia's special events aren't enough for you, nearby Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown has historic steam locomotives, a restored roundhouse maintenance facility, a museum, regularly-scheduled train rides and special Christmas rides with Santa.
Railtown's trains have played a role in many familiar movies including High Noon and Unforgiven.
For more information, go to: http://www.railtown1897.org/railtown/ or call (209) 984-3953. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except major holidays.
If you're up for a bigger hike in the area, the Stanislaus River's New Melones Reservoir is just a few miles a way. With more than 30 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails, and some of the state's best fishing, it's also a great place to explore this time of year.
For an excellent map of hiking trails, go to: http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/maps/2010/2010_trail_new_melones_lake.pdf. Ranger-led hikes are also offered every other weekend with 1.3-mile hike to the Dam Overlook on Saturday, Dec. 5, and a 1.5-mile wildlife hike to Cougar Point on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 10 a.m.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman and local historian who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.